Manager values situational hitting over power numbers, as he did in his playing days
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Here's the thing: When Ryne Sandberg was first breaking into the big leagues with the Cubs in 1982, few thought he'd ever hit for much power.
"I thought he was going to be a real good hitter, a line-drive hitter. But if somebody had told me he was going to hit home runs, I'd have said they were crazy," recalled Larry Bowa, who was 36 years old with five All-Star selections behind him in 1982.
That was before Cubs manager Jim Frey started working with the youngster on learning to pull the ball.
"I remember in BP one day, we were hitting on the field. And [Frey] told Ryno, 'I want you to hit every ball over the tarps,'" continued Bowa, now the Phillies' bench coach. "You know they have those rolled-up tarps at Wrigley Field down the lines? He said, 'I want you to hit every one over those tarps into the seats' -- which would be foul, but he wanted him to get a feel for pulling the ball. He kept doing that and doing that. And lo and behold, he became an unreal player."
Sandberg eventually hit so many pitches over the fence, in fact, that when he retired after the 1997 season, he had hit more home runs as a second baseman (277) than any player in history. That clearly didn't hurt his chances when he became eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame. The theme of Sandberg's induction speech in Cooperstown in July 2005 was respect for the game. But he also seemed to go out of his way to downplay the importance of the long ball.
"When did it become OK for someone to hit home runs and forget how to play the rest of the game?" Sandberg said.
"They wanted us to be baseball players, not only home run hitters."
Now that Sandberg is about to embark on his first full year of managing a Phillies team that finished last season with 140 home runs, its fewest since 1998, it seems like a good time to check in and see exactly where the home run fits into his managerial philosophy.
The answer is nuanced, but let's start with this: Sandberg likes to see a big fly as much as the next guy.
"A home run is a home run. I don't dislike a home run," he said Sunday, sitting in his office before a 4-1 Grapefruit League loss to the Pirates at Bright House Field. "I'll take a three-run home run in a heartbeat. I'll take a solo home run. I'll give a guy a high five."
"If a guy hits a home run every 30 at-bats and he's hitting .220, that's what I'm talking about," Sandberg said. "There are other at-bats there that need to add up."
Home runs, then, aren't the goal. Home runs are the byproducts of good at-bats with solid approaches.
"All I know is, I never went to home plate trying or thinking about hitting a home run and actually did it," Sandberg said. "It was usually a result of looking middle-away and then reacting to the inside pitch. When I took a good swing and squared the ball up and elevated a little bit, that resulted in the home runs -- with a line-drive, gap-to-gap approach. My first order of business was to drive the ball using the whole field. Then when I caught one out front a little bit and then reacted to it, that was the home run."
The issue, of course, is that baseball has become more homer happy in the last 20 years. More home runs tend to lead to fatter contracts. There's less shame in striking out than ever. Sandberg is bucking powerful trends here.
"I think it's a mindset, but it's also making the players aware that that is important and that's part of doing the job," he said. "As a staff and coming from myself, we talk about playing the game the right way. We talk about situational hitting."
They do more than talk about it, too. A round of hit-and-runs is built into batting practice every day.
"A hit-and-run for me is hitting the ball hard where it's pitched, favoring the top half of the ball," Sandberg said.
"That may result in a hard ground ball somewhere. It may result in a line-drive double. It might result in a triple or a home run on an accident. So we talk about it. I know that the players know what the job is when it presents itself. And we verbalize that. We communicate it. We pull for the player to do that, even if it's hitting a weak ground ball in the bottom of the eighth with a man on second and no outs. That's doing the job. That's a big thing right there."
By Sandberg's math, a solo homer counts for a run, but so does a sacrifice fly with runners on first and third.
"And we've still got some action going. We have a chance to score a couple more," he pointed out.
A homer with a runner on counts for two runs, but so does a sharp base hit up the middle with runners on second and third.
"Hitting with men in scoring position. That gap-to-gap stroke and up-the-middle [approach] works very well when the pitchers bear down and don't want to give in," Sandberg said. "That's tough to hit a home run there. So if a guy is swinging for a home run all the time, he might have trouble executing the base hit up the middle."
In a way, it comes down to playing the odds.
"An error and a walk is two men on," Sandberg said. "A guy hits a double, that might be two runs. That's like a two-run home run. So that can happen more often, in my thinking, than a two-run home run. Because those situations come up more than a pitch right there and a guy taking a great swing and getting all of it and hitting a home run."
As a player, Sandberg didn't try to hit home runs. As a manager, he doesn't want his players to. He just wants them to have good at bats. If they do, Sandberg believes the home runs will come. Along with a lot of other good results.